Adult Social Care’s vacancy rate, as reported by employers, dropped 18% in the first six months of the pandemic, and, when the latest stats are released, we anticipate they will show this positive trend continued into the first weeks of 2021. But not everything is always as it seems, and, in this article, we look behind the headline figures, uncovering a looming threat and a significant learning opportunity for employers.
Most readers are all too familiar with the impact the pandemic has had on their own care workforce. One published measure of the organisational impact is the almost tripling of days lost to sickness. But this statistic doesn’t address tens of thousands of personal stories of care workers struggling with illness, stress, guilt and concern for loved ones. Or how these lost days were covered by exhausted colleagues maintaining support to residents and clients. It doesn’t capture the familial love that care managers have for both those in their care and their teams, or how much the burden of responsibility to keep everyone safe weighed on them. And it certainly doesn’t reflect the tragedy of care staff dying as a result of their commitment to caring for others.
Given these extraordinary emotional and physical factors on top of the general challenges of working in a frontline care role, why did retention levels seemingly improve? Two main themes cited by employers in a recent poll help us untangle this: firstly, loyalty and dedication of staff not wanting to abandon those in their care, and secondly, lack of alternative employment options. We believe this short-term combination of factors may have simply propped up retention rates by temporarily delaying staff resignations, rather than preventing them.
Now vaccinations are almost universal among the vulnerable and the economy is bouncing back, props may fall away quickly, leaving our sector dangerously exposed to a widespread staffing exodus. At the same time, and at the worst possible moment, the door is closing to a potential EU migrant care workforce that mostly doesn’t meet current immigration criteria (always an ill-judged policy in our opinion).
Where does that leave social care employers? We need to uncover and examine the biggest workforce lesson to come out of the pandemic before we can chart a course to improve both recruitment and retention for any employer of care staff.
The extraordinary power of values
It has long been our belief that, if adult social care characteristics – the low pay, emotional and physical pressures, unsociable hours, escalating demand and long overdue need for structural reform – were apparent in any other human services, a catastrophic collapse would have occurred long ago. Workers would simply vote with their feet and exit the sector for higher paid local work in substitute industries. Whilst a major concern, our sector vacancy rate is surely much lower than supply and demand economics would predict. So, what is going on?
The answer? We benefit from the extraordinary goodwill of the majority of the workforce and this is the invisible glue that holds social care together. What care workers themselves often describe as ‘a calling for care’ is actually a powerful alignment of their personal values with those of the job role. Something no other hourly paid job offers.
This could be considered social care’s superpower: the ability to match the specific beliefs, values and aspirations of a large subset of people from all walks of life, simultaneously offsetting the significant downsides of the job. Could we go as far as saying that the bigger the social care crisis, the higher the sector’s dependency on care workers’ goodwill and generosity of spirit? The pandemic has certainly made this clear: the values of our workforce are fundamental to the provision of good care. Nothing matters more.
The case for values-based recruitment
It’s not difficult to make a compelling argument for prioritising values when reviewing applicants for frontline care roles. We know that people selected for their values tend to stay longer, perform better and have fewer absence days. We also know that employers clearly see a return on investment and, more importantly, the continuity and experience of care improves for the person receiving it. Whilst there isn’t an official ‘list’ of social care values for all organisations in the sector, many employers adopt very similar ones, such as dignity and respect or working together. One of the first steps and perhaps most important step to adopting a values-based approach is for that employer to determine what their organisational values should be and why these are important. This is usually done in consultation with staff, and people who use the services, and includes their families, friends, carers and/or advocates.
We predict that, over the coming months and years, the only way to build any kind of solid foundation for our care workforce will be to select candidates for their values. As unemployment rates fall away, memories of social care’s contribution to the greater good fades, staff retention weakens and demand for care continues to rise, we desperately need a North Star to guide our recruitment. Our proposal is this: break the negative cycle of replacing leavers in haste, instead recruiting for values above all else, thus lessoning retention challenges.
Using our existing employees to select the people they consider to have the right values through employee referral is a great way of doing this. The result is a significant improvement in staff turnover in the first 90 days of employment. In addition, when managers are asked to identify the highest performing members of the team, those selected by employees are two and a half times more likely to be chosen than those recruited by the next most popular method.
And there is no shortage of people in the local community who hold the beliefs we seek. A great illustration of this is the reaction of many displaced workers, often hesitant entrants to our sector from the arts, hospitality, travel and leisure, who have discovered and perhaps been surprised by just how rewarding caring for others can be. When workers’ values and the role align, wonderful things happen.
Skills for Care provides a lot of support to employers around recruiting and retaining for values, and this has been reinforced by successive national recruitment campaigns to reach a wider public. Ultimately, though, it is the responsibility of the employer to use local methods to attract, select and hire, drawing from the community whilst focusing on values throughout the process. Here are some simple tips to help employers do just that:
- Reduce your dependency on active job seekers
It’s important not to rely on a single channel to recruit. The majority of recruiters list internet job boards as their primary recruitment source, and this severely limits the available candidate pool, since active job seekers represent less than 25% of the potential new recruits for any provider. This means limited choice of those with the values you seek.
- Measure results to find out what is working
Less than a third of employers monitor whether their hiring practices equal suitable employees with the right values. We’ve found that, whilst most managers intuitively know that employee referrals are their strongest source, usually there is no measurement. Those employers who do analyse it can then go on to confidently realign their recruitment and retention approach entirely around values.
- Craft an offer that doesn’t insist on experience … or a CV
We know that people from all walks of life can be successful in a care role, so don’t infer prior experience is needed but always describe the values you require. For example, family care experience is a great predictor of success and a reliable indicator of suitable values. Such experience is rarely on a CV and transcends a candidate’s current or prior occupation.
- Demonstrate your organisational values
With very few entry barriers to social care beyond the right to work, the ability to reach the care setting daily and a willingness to fulfil the required hours, recruiters can become tired of processing high volumes of half-hearted enquiries, leading to dismissive and slow responses to new applications. Make sure your candidates ‘feel’ your values with timely replies and a genuine interest in why they are considering a care role.
- The job offer is only the beginning
However well you have selected new starters, the hardest part is converting them into loyal members of the team who grow and stay. Try these approaches:
- Provide pre-planned induction and support from day one, ideally via a ‘buddy’ or peer mentor.
- Have open, values-led communication channels.
- Offer reassurance and timely information.
- Listen to and encourage feedback.
- Give regular recognition and appreciation.
- Ensure leaders and managers at all levels embrace a values-based culture and recognise how this impacts on the organisation’s recruitment and retention success, because, as the old saying goes: people quit a manager, not a job – so lead by example.
- Be an employer of choice in your community – word will soon spread and your reputation will create a flow of those attracted by shared values.
We face an existential challenge to not only maintain our current workforce, but to backfill our vacancies and recruit fast enough to keep up with the demand for care. But, by putting values at the centre of our workforce strategy, everything becomes an awful lot more achievable, don’t you think?
Annette Baines is Head of Partnerships and Research at Care Friends and was, until recently, Head of Recruitment and Retention at Skills for Care. Neil Eastwood is the author of Saving Social Care and Founder and CEO of Care Friends. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @CareFriendsApp
How has your organisation approached recruitment during the pandemic? Have you successfully implemented values-based recruitment? Share your comments and thoughts below.